The Bureau of Land Management announced Tuesday that it will revisit a key provision of sage grouse protection plans that would limit mining and drilling on the birds’ habitat.
Environmental groups see this as a chance to build upon a landmark deal reached in 2015 to safeguard the iconic birds and their delicate sagebrush-steppe habitat across the American West.
“[The sage grouse] needs more protection now than ever,” said Greta Anderson, deputy director of the Western Watersheds Project. “And we hope this administration is up to the task of providing that.”
The sage grouse population has fallen precipitously over the years largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation.
Stakeholders including ranchers, scientists, environmentalists and policymakers developed a plan in 2015 to protect sage grouse without listing them under the federal Endangered Species Act.
That deal also withdrew about 10 million acres of sage grouse habitat from “mineral entry,” meaning it strictly limited mining, oil and gas drilling, and other extractive activities on those lands. But the withdrawal was only temporary because the Obama administration said it required a separate environmental review.
After the temporary withdrawal lapsed, the Trump administration scrapped plans for it altogether without any environmental review, opening sage grouse habitat for business.
A federal judge later vacated the Trump administration’s decision and directed the BLM to restart the process required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The agency’s announcement Tuesday said that it will comply with the court order to determine whether limiting mining and drilling on those 10 million acres of habitat is crucial to sage grouse survival.
“The planning process and the evaluation of whether or not a mineral withdrawal is needed for sage-grouse conservation will be grounded in science and robust engagement,” the agency said in a statement.
Anderson with Western Watersheds Project says this presents an opportunity for President Joe Biden’s BLM to strengthen the deal reached in his days as vice president.
“We thought at the time that the 2015 plans weren’t strong enough and that there was way too much wiggle room for industries to have their way with sage grouse habitat,” Anderson said. “And in fact, that’s what we saw happen under the Trump administration.”